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Ask Andy – Blog 20

The school rollercoaster effect and how you can support your own and others wellbeing

Working in schools has never been more challenging and in “normal” times we experience peaks and troughs of pressure and draws on our wellbeing. I remember the autumn and summer terms being particularly long. As we approach the end of term, particularly the Christmas term with the normal pressures of trying to promote as much learning as possible, we then switch into Christmas party, nativities and productions, Christingle services and other end of term activities. It can feel like one activity after another. I often found myself collapsing exhausted at the end of term and then literally within days, falling sick with some kind of winter bug. The same kind of thing happened in the summer term with the pressure on time for report writing, end of year assessments including exams, then leavers activities, summer fair and so on. Again, the first week of the holidays would be one of regaining lost sleep and often falling ill, and generally recovering.

I used to describe it as the rollercoaster of workload and loss of personal and family wellbeing, in order to meet all the deadlines by the end of term, before we entered a period of quiet over the break, to try and regain sleep, come down from the full-on high-pressured activities of a busy term. The highs in pressure, workload and sheer length of days were followed by an acceleration to the end of term and then the dip of the holiday period.

Of course, the high stress, high workload and pressure that initiates the stress hormone Cortisol is not good for our health. Our body literally diverts resource away from other parts of the body and even other hormone generation, we draw on our reserves and of course when we stop, there is a price to pay as our bodies recover from the high stress peak of the rollercoaster. When we get ill in the school holidays it is often a physiological response to get us to stop and recover and our resources are depleted so there is little resource to fight colds and infection.

Of course, this working pattern which so many in our schools will recognise not only makes us more susceptible to the usual bugs and colds, it makes us more susceptible to Covid. We know that our immune systems are key to fighting Covid and we need them as strong as possible which is why I am proposing that we do things differently as we move through the next academic year. It seems as though Covid is going to be here for the foreseeable future therefore we need the staff in our schools to have robust immune systems, not ones worn down by excessive pressure and workload.

The purpose of this months’ blog is to promote some thinking about how we iron out the peaks and troughs and in doing so, help to promote better wellbeing for all of our staff. If you’re a governor reading this, this might form part of your discussions at governor’s meetings or meetings with senior leaders.

When I say wellbeing, I’m talking about time for adequate sleep, at least 7 quality hours a night, proper nutrition rather than skipping mealtimes and eating late, time to relax in an evening rather than coming home to work more, and time for exercise so that we can strengthen our bodies and have the positive impact of the endorphins released when we exercise.

How can we ensure that we and our staff get these basic wellbeing requirements?

Building a wellbeing plan based on the “nice to do” will have little impact if these basic requirements aren’t met. Any plan can look tokenistic if we’re not addressing the big picture.

So how might we go about regaining time for staff wellbeing? There are a number of questions I’d encourage you to consider. As a leadership team, decide what your priorities are for this year. What are the key things you want to achieve and limit them to 5 at the very most?

Too many priorities are no priorities.

1) What are the key outcomes you hope to achieve this year?

2)  What is it we want our staff to be doing? Is this manageable and can we focus on them doing more of the right things and less of the things that have little impact?

3) How do we create the environment where they can do this to the best of their abilities?

4) How do we support them to achieve these goals?

5) How do we strip away the things that prevent them from achieving these goals?

In terms of the things that will help promote good wellbeing with staff there are so many things that you can do, but ask yourself whether these are sustainable and profound or could be placed in the tokenistic box. It’s no good having free tea and coffee in the staff room if staff workload is through the roof.

To this end I think there are key questions for SLT and staff meetings and don’t be afraid of bringing these topics up in staff meetings.

There are three key factors that we all need as human beings for good wellbeing and they are sleep, exercise, relaxation and nutrition. Try asking the following questions in an SLT meeting first as they will be a microcosm of the responses you’ll get from staff.

1) What in a professional sense, is preventing staff from sleeping well at night.

Is it workload, is it pressure from parents or pupils, is it the pressure that staff put on themselves? How might we address this?

2) Do you get enough exercise? I’m not suggesting marathon training, but do you get a couple of times a week when you raise your resting heart rate? Walking is a great way of exercising and is an easy access point to exercise for most. An after school or lunchtime walking club for just 20 minutes gives you a break from work and allows you to freshen your mind and get those feel-good endorphins pumping around. Over time you’ll become healthier and have better mental health.

3) Relaxation is often seen as a luxury, but it is so important and yes not just at home. There need to be breaks and a chance to be yourself as an individual during the school day. Does your staff room allow this? What do you do in the staffroom to foster relaxation? How do staff prefer to relax?

4) Too often during the school day and beyond we don’t fuel ourselves properly. Breakfast is often a piece of toast on the hoof, lunch if you get it, is often eaten as you prepare for the afternoon and in an evening is often eaten too late at night. Have you thought about how the school kitchen staff could contribute to healthy snacks during the day for staff?

At SAS we know the value of these key pillars to wellbeing and are here to support your school with conversations about how we can build these so that your staff are the best version of themselves possible, which is my definition of wellbeing. We have expertise to share about how to build each of these pillars so please do use the opportunity as a school that buys into SAS to have a wellbeing planning conversation with me. I’m here for you and it comes as a free part of your policy. I have created a resource with suggestions about how schools can build staff wellbeing within the 4 pillars outlined above. If you would like to know more I’m you can find more here and book a slot by clicking here.

Your policy isn’t just a policy that protects your budget, we are here to support you and your staff, to build wellbeing, to take the peaks and troughs out and provide you with the ability to lead your schools with well staff both physically and mentally. You aren’t alone as we start a new school year, we are here to help.

If you aren’t yet an SAS school, then please do contact us for a quote. We can support you through this academic year and beyond, help you to keep your staff well, maximise their effectiveness and give them renewed purpose. In short, a policy with SAS can be see as a school improvement resource not just as a way to protect your budget. I’m happy to refer you on to our team if you email me at: andy.mellor@uk-sas.co.uk

I wish you every success this year and hope that you achieve everything that you hope to achieve. I sincerely hope that in July next year we can look back on a year where we have supported you to support the wellbeing of your staff and pupils so that they can be the very best version of themselves in what will be another challenging year.

In closing I also wanted to signpost this link to the Anna Freud Centre who have created some useful “Back to School” resources which will help schools support mental health and wellbeing in school and allow schools to contact charities that will be able to support mental health and wellbeing in school. You can view this resource by clicking here.

Ask Andy

If you have questions about wellbeing practice, would like to suggest future content for Andy's blogs or if you are having success with wellbeing culture in your school and would like to share your story, please complete the form below.